I have sought you, Silas, because you are my cousin, but more than that, we are friends, you and I. You stood at my side when I married Miriam, and I at yours when you wed Naomi. When our sons were born, we served as sandok* for one another, for the boys came so close together they could almost have been twins. Then we both moved here from our native Bethlehem, I to go into business, and you to study for the rabbinate.
Our wives, our sons. It is because of them that I have sought you, for there have been strange goings-on here in Jerusalem and later in Bethlehem.
It was about six weeks ago, when I was at my stall in the marketplace. Trade had been slow, and I was thinking of closing early, when there came a stirring, a sense of excitement. Children ran by, shouting, but there was more—a moving from the east, and the rumble of a multitude approaching.
Then they came, a caravan out of Persia, about 300 in all—horsemen, foot soldiers, porters, led by three princely men. The glorious trappings on the horses, the garments of the men! The finest of wool and linens, the rarest of dyes. Such wealth, such splendor come to our poor Jerusalem. I could not cease from staring at such magnificence. I wondered that bandits had not beset them in their journeying. But their soldiers were well-muscled, like gladiators, and armed like Caesar’s best.
And there were three asses, heavily laden and carefully guarded. Yet it was the great ones themselves who made all else seem as nothing by comparison. Their bearing so regal, they were noble in every sense of the word. The marketplace fell silent as we spied them.
One was old, a bearded greyhead riding in a chariot. The others were young, in their prime, erect and proud on horseback. Royal, yes, but there was more. They seemed at the same time humble, searching.
The entire train came to a halt, filling the square. The elderly prince spoke a few words to a nearby aide. The aide spoke to a servant, and the servant spoke to yet another servant.
This last one came running to Issachar, whom we call the Mayor of the Marketplace, and bowing low, he said in our own language, My masters seek water and provender for our beasts, and food and fresh supplies for us men, for we have come a long way. And is there a place large enough for so large a party as ours to lodge? But first and most important—for it is this for which we have come—where can we find him, the one born to be rightful King of the Jews?”
Rightful King of the Jews! I tell you, Silas, those words froze the blood in my veins. Well we know what Herod, that imposter, would do to another claimant to his throne!
But the others heard only the words, “water…provender…food…supplies.” What a scurrying about! Everyone wanted to try the Persian coin. Soon all needs were met of men and beasts. The horses chewed contentedly on the best grain of the market while the men pitched camp in the south field, rented to them by Issachar.
Yet their one question remained. Where could they find him born to be our king? They had a tale of reading some of our prophecies—who knows where they could have found them—and of seeing a heavenly sign that told of his rising. They were determined that they would not leave without seeing him. Issachar would be well paid for his field!
Then a messenger came from Herod. Word of so great a caravan had not been long in reaching the palace. Herod himself would grant them an audience. It should have been the other way, should it not? Those men were kings, indeed. Our Herod will always be of the baser sort.
Their meeting with Herod proved profitable. Soon the entire party resumed its march, moving towards Bethlehem. Their sign was leading them again, they said.
Later we heard more: that they had halted before a modest home on a side street where dwelt a man and his wife, Galileans who had moved there about the time of the census. The man, Joseph by name, ran a small carpenter shop. They had a young son. This child was the one those men of the east had come seeking.
Such a tale as came back from Bethlehem! If all Jerusalem was in an uproar over the arrival of those great ones, Bethlehem was well-nigh turned upside down. The eastern princes, their servants, their soldiers and their horses filled the town from one end to the other. Yet they entered that house and made obeisance to the small son of the carpenter. Indeed, they worshipped him! And this carpenter, though I have heard that he is a godly man, permitted it.
The baggage of the travelers soon was lighter, for the asses were relieved of their burdens as the great ones presented the child with costly gifts, wealth befitting a king. Gold, of course. Who would not offer gold to a newborn king? And incense from eastern lands, and myrrh, the finest to be had. That myrrh did trouble me.
Could it mean they looked for a death, possibly an early death? Who would present embalming spices to a child not long born?
We were not to see those three again, as it turned out. Herod had invited them to call on him once more, claiming that he, too, would worship the king of the Jews. But, wisely, they did not believe him. Having finished their business in Bethlehem, they hurried away by another route and no doubt were well beyond Persia before Herod could guess they had tricked him.
Those events set me thinking, Silas, and remembering events during the census two years ago. One hears everything in the marketplace. There came news one day from Bethlehem, of babbling shepherds, a tale of a babe born during the census, and a vision of angels proclaiming that our Messiah had come at last.
The Messiah come! As if we had not enough trouble with Rome and its soldiers and its taxes and its infernal census! The Messiah come! And if Caesar should hear of it, he would certainly send soldiers, and that would be the end of the Messiah.
The shepherds went to see this wonder, they said: a newborn child, laid to bed in a manger because of the overcrowding at all the inns. Then, having seen the babe, they returned to their fields, happily insisting to all who would hear that indeed our Messiah had come at last.
For centuries we Jews have looked for the Promised One. But always we have dreamed of him coming in power mounted upon a white steed, leading the hosts of heaven, riding into Jerusalem to set up his kingdom, avenging all injustice, punishing wrongdoers, destroying our enemies and establishing peace on earth.
But to appear as a babe, weak, helpless, drooling and spitting, wailing to be fed, to be held? No, that could not be our Messiah!
Yet, Silas, there was our grandfather Simeon, truly a godly man. I recall the lessons he taught us from the Holy Scriptures, the words of Moses and the prophets.
“The time is drawing near, Elias,” he would tell me solemnly. “The prophets told us when it would be.”
And he would tap those scrolls of his, the words of that holy man, Daniel, and stare at me with those old eyes that were growing weaker with each day’s passing. Boylike, I paid no heed.
Our grandfather was much in the Temple during his last days. It was just about the time of the shepherds and their nine-days’ wonder that he happened to be in the Temple when those two from Galilee came to present their newborn son in accordance with the Law.
Simeon said he knew the minute he saw the pair and their infant that this was the Promised One. Trembling, he took the child into his arms and praised God, saying, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your Word; for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”
Then he left the Temple, and soon afterwards he let go his hold on life. He has found a place among the blessed, we may be sure.
All these things I forgot until the coming of the men from the east. Simeon and the shepherds, having seen, believed. Not having seen, the three kings believed—strongly enough to leave their native land and undertake that long and hazardous journey.
As I pondered this wonder, Simeon’s words came alive. He spoke of salvation for all people, light to the Gentiles, glory for Israel. Could this one be our Messiah? Could he have come, not for us alone, but for the whole world? I had to know.
I found Simeon’s holy scrolls and pored over them just as he used to, Silas—the Psalms, the Prophets, Moses. And I found that while the Scriptures do indeed speak of glory, they speak, too, of death as a just recompense for sin. And we are sinners, you and I. You know that, Silas. How can we make ourselves righteous in the eyes of our holy God?
But now this is why I have sought I you so urgently, Silas. The carpenter was here! He came by stealth, offering gold for provender. He said he was going on a long journey. I can guess what he meant. His son has been named King of the Jews, and the matter is public. Herod is wicked, greedy, always fearful of some plot against his life and his throne. His wrath will be implacable. The carpenter is taking his wife and child and fleeing far from Herod’s jurisdiction, far even from the reach of Rome.
Silas, you and I have sons too, just about the age of that one, and born in Bethlehem just as he was. Our sons may be in danger, too! I have told my fears to Miriam, and she agrees. My stall at the marketplace is for sale, but we are not waiting for the best price. We are fleeing, too.
And I am asking you, Silas, cousin and friend, to go with us. I beg you. I beseech you. I implore you, Silas. Escape while there is yet time!
* The one who holds a male child during his circumcision ceremony, usually a relative or close friend.